Driven to help, Noé Castañón delivers hope one pair of running shoes at a time.
It’s midnight and 51-year-old Noé Castañón is heading out into the hills around Oakland, California for his daily run. He may finish in an hour, maybe three. Work was done at 6:30 at the auto shop, the same one he’s worked at for the last 25 years. He goes home, has dinner, does chores, but won’t sleep till he gets the training in. “If you want to face challenges, you have to prepare,” he says. “I find the time. I make it happen.”
His head torch is on, and alone he trains at an even pace. The lights of San Francisco burn dull through the wet fog. He’s not the fastest runner. He knows that. But he’s driven, and nothing will stop him from getting his miles. On the surface, he seems like the everyman of ultrarunning – a blue collar workmanlike approach to fitness and racing. Inside his corazón, his heart, beats a thirst for challenge born out of destruction.
It was the worst day of his life, the “Roads Less Travelled Relay 200-miler” in 2011. His brother had dropped him off after work. On the way, Noé had given him a Best Buy gift card. His brother tried to refuse, but Noé wasn’t having it. “No, I don’t need anything,” he said. “I’m not rich but I have a good job and do what I love.” Four hours later, he was deep into the first leg of the race when he finally came back into cell range. There was a message from his wife he never hoped to get. Their house had burned down. In the middle of nowhere, he ran on. It was all he could do. Not wanting to distract other runners or garner pity, he told no one. When he finally got back home, there was nothing left – one side was collapsed, the other leaning, dripping wet and smoldering in ash. Everything he owned was now in his pockets.
Born in Fresnillo Zacatecas, Mexico, life lessons came early for Noé. Lost among ten siblings, he dreamed of having a bicycle. He wrote on a piece of paper on Christmas Eve, as per their tradition, asking Santa for the bike. He believed in Santa, but when there was no bike, he became dejected. His father told him if he wanted something out of life, he had to work for it. Noé did, getting odd jobs cleaning houses, moving furniture, wherever he could find someone in need. And eventually, he got his bike.
That carried over into his work. He went to a vocational school to learn to be an auto mechanic. He met an American woman, got married, and began working at Delta Auto. He got a green card and eventually became a citizen. At night, he went to school to learn English and take more classes on the changing world of automobile care. It took him five years to finish his degree.
Running began in 2003, and in a way this writer believes he’s never heard of before. It was a Saturday, and a customer at his service station invited him to a “crazy race in San Francisco.” The guy said, “let’s go. You are gonna see a naked woman. She’s gonna be running.”
“What?” Noé said, confused.
The next day, the two went to wait for the runners at Golden Gate Park. In the crowd on the side of the street, he saw a massive group of runners and sure enough, a few naked men and women, having fun. “Everybody had their own business,” he says. It was the Bay to Breakers race 12k and many of the runners were in costume. There was Elvis, a castle, funky cartoon characters. Going there like your average Joe wanting to see some nudity, he found something else, and it changed him. “I saw thousands of people running, old, handicapped, kids, fat, skinny, all sizes, all colors,” he said. “I felt embarrassed about myself… Those people were doing something for themselves… I was doing nothing.”
After losing his home to fire, the ultra community stepped up with donations: money, a rental property, clothes, food. Surprisingly, he was back on his feet in weeks. He never forgot the kindness, the selflessness. A seed was planted. He could do something bigger with his running.
That same year, he started a program delivering used running gear to the underprivileged in Mexico. And that is why he trains no matter the time of night; he has to make it to the best races. There, he can get the most donations. Simply called “Shoes for Runners,” he delivers gear, gets in touch with coaches and authorities, and uses the clout he’s earned through running to try and inspire his countrymen to do more. “Sometimes people want to do great things,” he says, “but they don’t know how.” During the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Noé reached out to the U.N. The images of those desperate people on his TV screen with no home to return to hit him hard. He helped the only way he could, he got them running shoes.
Noé didn’t stop there. He began bringing a certain kind of runner to his hometown, which sits at over 7,000 feet, where he pays for them to train. “We try to go for people who nobody cares about but have some running talent,” he says with a sense of urgency as if he wants to save the world. Usually these are twenty somethings in trouble with the law or with school. He coaches them and takes them to competition. In 2015, he even attracted the attention of a Mexican gang. They had heard there was a Mexican runner running 100-mile races and supplying gear. They couldn’t believe that was possible. Not knowing what to expect, two of their members began to train with Noé’s group of local coaches, eventually making it to the Central American Games. The experience left them with a strange sense of pride in their country. The last thing they expected to be were paragons of cultural identity. But that’s exactly what Noe hopes to impart.
The winter sets in over Oakland, the temperature drops fast as the wind blows in fierce off the bay. It’s dark. It’s late. And most people are in their beds, doing their best to forget the trappings of their day. Noé is out in the hills, pushing himself to get in his miles, thinking about what he can do tomorrow. He’s a regular guy with a regular job, but with rare aspirations in this day and age: he wants to make the world a better place, and he won’t stop running till he’s done his part.